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He has been sighted deep in the offensive zone, going where few Sabre defenseman have ventured since Phil Housley was shipped to Winnipeg. Yet, Uwe Krupp's plus-minus rating remains at even, a pillar of stability considering most of his teammates reside in the red.

There's not much else the Sabres can request of Krupp. OK, so coach Rick Dudley, alluding to the inconsistencies of his key offensive personnel, says he'd like to see Krupp score 70 goals. But, getting back to reality, there's no question that Krupp is challenging Doug Bodger as the Sabres' most well-rounded defenseman.

Krupp ranks ninth on the team with 17 points, including a career-high six goals. Two of those have come on a power play, a bone Krupp was seldom thrown before this season. He plays in short-handed situations; he finishes his checks; he has, going by the radar-gun competition of Thursday's annual open practice at the Aud, the hardest shot among the team's backliners. Krupp topped out at 90 mph, and averaged 87 mph on three shots.

Yet Krupp has extracted little personal satisfaction from this season, his fourth full-time tour of the National Hockey League. Last year the Sabres were winners, piling up 98 points to finish third overall in the regular season. But going into tonight's game against high-flying Chicago (7:35, cable, WGR) at the Aud, Buffalo is in the bottom half of the league. There has been little joy in Dudsville.

"I was happier with last year's season than this year's," Krupp said. "Just because last year I wasn't on the (score)board as much . . . but we were doing so well as a team. We were right up there and everybody was in a good mood all the time.

"This year's a little different. Obviously, when you're not winning -- let's not say when you're losing -- but when you're not winning, the atmosphere is a little more tense."

It's the nature of the position, says Krupp, that defensemen always find themselves on the defensive. Mistakes that result in goals are more easily traced when a backliner errs within his zone. And perhaps it's the nature of the sport that big defensemen, 6-foot-6, 235-pound Goliaths such as Krupp, receive an excessive share of fan abuse.

"I'm going to look foolish trying to hit a guy who's 5-foot-10," Krupp said. "I'm running and he sees me coming, he goes the other way and you maybe get half a shoulder and hit him, and you wasted all that energy going after him. Small guys, they're good today. They're th Sabres
mobile, they use whatever they got."

As for fighting, that was never part of the hockey Krupp was taught in his native West Germany. "Knuckles" is not a nickname common to the European game.

"I came over here and all of a sudden you're confronted with the fighting," Krupp said. "I can protect myself, but I won't instigate a fight. The fans just see me being tall and big, and think he's got to do this and that. But that's not really my role. If somebody challenges me, you won't see me back down from nobody. But I'm not going to be somebody going out there saying, 'who wants to fight me now?' "

Besides, time in the ring translates into less time on the rink. And the Sabres cannot afford the frivolous loss of players who support their sporadic attack.

"Obviously, Uwe's doing pretty well offensively," Dudley said. "He has a hard shot, and he's starting to hit the net with it. He's starting to see openings and take advantage of them."

"I like the freedom, no question," Krupp said. "Last year, I was asked to play defense with Mike Ramsey and basically all we did was destroy the other team's most creative line, keep them off the board.

"This year, with the trades we've had, that's changed. Our centermen need the puck and we have to jump on the play, and I'm just doing what I'm asked to do."

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